Tesla has come a long way since the days of its humble Roadster beginnings, elevating electric cars into new heights of luxury and quality. But it has remained true to its sporty roots with cars like the Model S P90D.
Now that the Tesla Model X SUV and Model 3 fleet-style cars are joining the Model S, its role as all-rounder becomes more vague. Does that mean the Model S will become more luxurious? More sporty? More shocking perhaps?
The most recent P90D has had a facelift and some tweaks to keep it alongside the Model X. Much of its excitement comes from optional extras such as Bioweapon Defense Mode (no, really, its HEPA air filter is 100 times more effective than most normal cars, as part of the £2,600 Premium Upgrades Package) and Ludicrious Mode (which, for its £8,700 extra, gives the P90D added pep and a 0-60mph time of just 2.8-seconds).
The 2016 P90D we're testing here comes with plenty of extras and, of course, Autopilot, which allows the car to take self-control to the next level. Having lived with the Model S P90D and all its technological extras, totalling more than £100,000, does this pure electric car warrant its BMW i8-equalling price?
Tesla Model S P90D: Design and build
The design of the Model S hasn't changed a great deal since it first appeared in 2012. But as the saying goes: "if it ain't broke...".
One thing you'll notice in real life, compared to pictures of the car, is that it's large. Those front wheel arches are wide and the boot is huge, thanks to this being a generally big American car. But elegant big, not lumbering big.
Little touches, like the metal door handles that pop out when you approach, never get old. Now you can even set the car to only pop out the driver's door handle as you approach. These software update additions are another great part of this car's design, which promise to keep giving long after the new car smell has faded.
The exterior is sleek, with bulging rear wheel arches and surprisingly wide front wheel distribution, that help go some way to explaining how fast this car can pull away without wheel spin (Ludicrous Mode being the main reason, though). For an extra £1,300 you can get a double panoramic tinted glass affair with a middle strut, presumably for support, which brings in oodles of light.
One touch of the boot button opens to the rear boot space – with seats down we put a large racing bike in, without even taking off the wheels, thanks to the 894-litre capacity. There's even more storage in the front bonnet too, although on this All Wheel Drive model that's a little less due to the front motor addition.
Inside the car everything feels premium with lots of leather and rich brushed metallic finishes. This model had a faux wood paneling which looks too shiny to be wood. The door handles and inner door lines are so subtle lots of people riding shotgun had to feel about to find them.
The seats are seriously comfortable too. They've got every kind of electric adjustment you could think of and, despite spending serious time in them, they didn't get any less than totally comfortable. There is also a heated seat option.
All this is sat around the centre of attention: that bold 17-inch touchscreen display console, which complements the driver's cockpit screen. Finished in metallic edging they look like windows into the future. But more about that below.
Tesla Model S P90D: Performance and handling
If you've ever been on a roller coaster ride that fires you out so fast your stomach turns, that's close to what the P90D does to you.
When in Ludicrous Mode, from stationary, the 532bhp motor will hit 60mph in 2.8-seconds. Thanks to all the electric torque it accelerates like no other car. We're almost amazed anybody can own one without having to pass a special driving test first. That or a licence to run theme park rides.
At any point there's plenty of power ready to push you forward, which makes overtaking on single lanes an absolute doddle. Regenerative engine braking, which can be switched to stronger or weaker, can be so good you barely need to touch the brakes if you time accelerator pedal easing just right.
Handling feels solid, but you're always aware that this is a big saloon-style vehicle for UK roads. It reminds us of an American muscle car, with plenty of straight line pull but not quite reassuring enough in its comfortable suspension to grip tightly into corners.
The power is intelligently delivered thanks to the All Wheel Drive system, so that the car just keeps holding on beyond where you think it can. So pushing the limits feels very exciting, but perhaps verging on dangerous in terms of the lack of human control. Of course if you're pushing that hard you're probably on a track and can learn those limits anyway.
When it comes to mileage the P90D is efficient (claims 316-mile range), albeit not quite as efficient as the standard 90D model (claims 346-mile range).
In the real-world we found a full charge listed as 255-miles. Since you're likely only going to aim to charge at home or on Superchargers - free connectors that charge Teslas in minutes instead of hours; however, they're rather rare – you will need to plan journeys around those stops, to avoid getting too close to that range limit.
In our experience that 255-mile measure was accurate though, even when using air conditioning and giving it the odd Ludicrous Mode speed burst. On hills that regenerative breaking helps to balance out the extra energy lost on the climbs, it seems.
Since those 120kWh Superchargers are ridiculously fast - a 30-minute top-up providesup to 170-miles of range; 75-minutes will fully charge the battery from dead - a quick stop won't significantly affect journey times. Home charging is much slower, though, taking over 10 times longer (there's a £1,300 High Power Charger Upgrade which ups the speed of charge, if you have a Type 2 wall box installed).
Tesla Model S P90D: Autopilot and electric features
Usually, we don't delve too deeply into self-driving abilities on cars as they're clearly advertised as a safety addition. Tesla, though, calls its system Autopilot. This system does what the others do, adjusting speed with adaptive cruise control and adjusting the wheel to stay in lane. But it goes even further.
When at speed on a motorway, a double pull of the autonomous driving stalk sets cruise at the speed limit and keeps the car in lane based on road markings. The display behind the wheel shows your car, using cameras to show surrounding vehicles (cars, vans and bikes), alerting you when objects or vehicles are close. It also shows the lane - the edges light-up blue when the Tesla is in control. There are also wheel- and cruise-control icons that light-up blue when activated.
This blue theme is simple but very clear and effective – it gives you a feeling of safety that helps you trust the car is working its magic. Slow to below 15mph in traffic and the car in front, also shown on the screen, lights up blue to show your Tesla is locked on and following, regardless of lane markings.
The active lane assist won't steer above 90mph, but you shouldn't be going that fast anyway, so no biggie in the UK.
The Tesla doesn't make an alert noise and tell you to hold the wheel as much as some cars with similar features. It also doesn't appear to do so based on time without hands on the wheel. Rather it seems to intelligently spot situations, like sharp curves, weak road markings, or more cars ahead, before alerting you to hold the wheel.
This makes it very easy to let go of all controls, or at least it ups the temptation. Don't forget, law dictates that you're legally driving a car, even if the car is "driving itself". But leaning in the back to grab that drink that's rolled under the seat is a very real possibility – just at your own risk, of course.
By and large the Autopilot feature works flawlessly. But any mistake is enough to shatter your trust and remind you just how close to losing it you could be at any moment. We had a few moments when cars pulled into our lane, very closely, and we had to brake. Often the car spotted them and did that for us, but when really close it was as if they'd slipped in under the sensors while the car was focusing on the car in front. Of course we may have just been braking before the car was about to, but it felt too close for comfort either way.
The only other instance when Autopilot struggled was in a heavy downpour. But this was so bad we could barely see the car in front and were doing about 15mph on the motorway.
All in all the £2,200 extra charge for the Autopilot system seems well worth it. This, alongside the electric fuel savings, is a compelling reason to own a Tesla.
Tesla Model S P90D: Infotainment and extras
That 17-inch touchscreen and the cockpit screen make for a perfectly clear view of all the car systems. In our experience that touchscreen is more than clear enough to replace buttons perfectly. Since you're often in Autopilot mode digging into menus and even typing Spotify track searches (Premium is included with the car's free 3G connection) is safe enough as the car is doing a lot of the driving.
Along the top of the screen are app icons. Tap once to bring up the map, say. Then tap another like music and it'll split screen with the map so you have both visible. Tap the music icon again and it'll go full screen – a simple but really effective way to navigate menus where you can multi-task and never feel lost.
Everything in the settings section is clear and toggles on or off with simplicity, just like using your smartphone. This is effective for in-driving access to everything.
However, we'd like to see a little more depth to some options, and perhaps a little more personalisation. We can see why keeping things simple works, but being able to dig deeper into the car is surely the future of car modding? Oh, a faster browser wouldn't go amiss either, as the provided one is pretty slow.
Tesla is a luxury brand. Its cars are not cheap. Indeed, they're not really even affordable for most. With plenty of options boxes ticked for this P90D review model it comes in at over £110,000. Which, if you've got such money to chuck around, might have you eyeing up the BMW i8 instead - sure, it doesn't offer the same space by any means, but it's an undeniably standout model.
Still, such a price point is because Tesla doesn't compromise. The P90D offers eyelid-flipping acceleration, space-age design (especially on the inside), digital menus that would make Apple swoon, heaps of interior and boot space, plus, of course, your own robot chauffeur in Autopilot.
If you're thinking of buying one the only limiting factor, really, is range. But having done plenty of long-range journeys we can confirm that stopping for a quick charge is as easy as stopping for a toilet break – in fact it's often one in the same. Thanks to silly-fast Supercharger charging times (if you can find one, given their relative rarity) you'll have added 100-miles to the range in the time it takes to empty your bladder and grab a coffee.
Is the Tesla the all-electric car to go for? Well, you get sports car speed but not quite the handling. You get smart self-driving but it's not quite fully autonomous (yet). You get beautiful menus but perhaps not enough depth or personalisation. Yet a software update could change everything.
So investing in the hardware now should mean you'll be even happier in the near future. That's more than a lot of other electric car manufacturers can say. All this and we've not even mentioned the environment once.